Category Archives: Word

Rally Day

decalogue-windowThe second use of the law is as the mirror. It shows us our sins. One of the old Rabbi’s ways of using the Decalogue was to line up one through five on the first side and six through ten on the other and use it as a diagnostic. (Sorry any reformed/evangelical readers, Calvin and Zwingli messed up your order because two commandments on coveting offended their reason and they needed to bolster their iconoclasm. The numbering used is the Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran.) If your community or society was engaged in rampant adultery (sixth commandment), the deep problem was idolatry (1st Commandment). That particular insight is often found in the prophets where Israel is compared to the harlot. Likewise if your culture is driven by coveting stuff (“ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor”, 10 Commandment), the deeper problem is with the 5th (don’t murder). The presenting problem may be late stage capitalism, but we are willing to make commodities of everything because we have already made commodities of each other. We can see this in cases big and small, the over 1 million aborted a year to the Chicago murder rate. And if you take Jesus in the Sermon in the mount at his word that hating your neighbor is murder, well our every 4 year festival of hatred where the people wearing the other color are compared to Hitler and real friends are sacrificed should be troubling.

A particular outgrowth of that media cycle that I find almost like cat-nip is the attributing of the worst possible meaning to whatever the red/blue flag bearer said yesterday. Charity assumes that what was said has some reason behind it, that there is some way in which it captures truth, until the pure malevolence of the speaker is proven. I may not understand it, but it is my moral obligation to attempt to or at the least assume there is one. This is the 8th commandment’s territory. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor which Luther glossed with a positive force of “defend him, speak well of him and put the best construction on everything.” Not being a Pollyanna type, more specifically being a hyper-analytical person who likes winning, I have too often put those traits not in the service of charity but destruction, of figuring out the worst possible meaning and imputing that to the speaker. It has been a conscious effort and struggle of mine to control that impulse. It is depressing how often I fail.

That might be the sin that lives in my members, the battle against the flesh, but if I look at the parallel commandment, the 3rd (Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy), I think I am staring at what the world is attacking. When asking what does this mean Luther wrote that “we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” That Sabbath commandment to Luther is about our handling of the Word of God. As Jesus would say “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Word of God is given to us for our good. If I am willing to intentionally distort my neighbor’s words, that stems first from my willingness to impugn God’s word. When God’s Word is not taken as sacred, it is real easy to treat my neighbor’s word as trash.
We can lament that the world does not take the Word seriously as Alan Jacob’s article in Harper’s a few weeks ago did, but we really should have no expectation of the world doing so. That was part of my response a couple of weeks ago which I posted here. It is another thing when the church neglects the Word. This interview with Kenneth Briggs, the “godbeat” editor for many years at places like the New York Times, talks about what he has seen. His pungent phrase is that the Bible has “become a museum exhibit, hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched.” Until the church is willing to reform its house back into what Luther called “God’s mouth-house”, the place where the Word forms us deeply, we will find it tough living with our neighbors. The church is the salt of the earth. If we can’t treat each other with charity, how will the world know?

I occasionally get asked why I insist on or put so much effort behind things like VBS, Sunday School, Bible Class and confirmation when the numbers are few. My response is usually something like “that is the call”. If the Pastor doesn’t put the Word first, then who will. Do I worry, especially around budget season, that someday that focus will leave me without a paycheck? I’d be lying if I said no. Another thing to repent from – “each day has enough trouble of its own, don’t fret”. So I turn back to the call, to call out all to repentance for the Kingdom of God is near, and to proclaim that now, in your hearing, is the year of the Lord’s mercy. Or taking that out of the high Biblical register, it’s Rally Day. Sunday School and Bible classes are starting again. I’d invite you to set aside a Sabbath to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn that Word.

A Humble Parson’s Response to Alan Jacobs

I tend not to preach on them because in the fifteen minutes a week I get for proclamation of Jesus I start with the gospels. But in my personal study I spend an inordinate amount of time in the twelve minor prophets. I feel drawn to them in a deep way because of the end of the age society they see. They are sent to prophesy, but their conviction is like Amos. “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman. But the Lord took me from following the flock.” They prophesy because the Lord told them to, and they do so with a passionate intensity, but what they do not prophesy with is an expectation that they will be heard. When a herdsman approaches a King, he knows that a seat at the table is probably not on offer. Joel cries, “who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind…”, but when the Lord has pity it is tied to the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. Hosea is told to marry a prostitute as a sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness, and his two kids receive the worst unique names in history. Habakkuk, tired of his prophesy, takes his complaint to the Lord. “How Lorg shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry ‘violence’ and you will not save…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth.” These prophets have words that cut my heart, and promises that I claim in Christ, but they stand to me as an awful warning for my brothers of the flesh.

I am thinking about the twelve after reading Alan Jacobs’ article in Harper’s Magazine. A strain in that article is a lament that Christian Intellectuals abandoned the liberal public square. His rebuke in these regards is not a heavy one. Mr. Jacobs understands that it was partly a two-way street. Richard John Neuhaus developed his own vehicle because when he talked about abortion he was no longer welcome at the liberal table as he had been over the Vietnam War. Likewise Mr. Jacobs does take Christians such as Marilynne Robinson to task for a witness to the liberal table that in my more harsh twelve inspired thoughts would be “peace, peace”. She is the house prophet saying all is well while Jeremiah is in rags. Another strain that Mr. Jacobs picks up but then abandons is Stanley Fish’s thoughts in First Things about just this desire to be a Christian Intellectual at the liberal table. “The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.” It is this strain that I wish he would have developed more for his audience in Harpers.

Being a Lutheran, we think in terms of Law and Gospel. The law is simply the demands of God. It can be summarized as the 10 commandments or probably better Jesus’ summary, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…and your neighbor as yourself.” The bitter truth of the law is that we can’t keep it. It is good and wise, but beyond our fallen ability to actually live. That causes all sorts of strategies. You can restrict the demands of the law. “Who is my neighbor?” or “Am I my brother’s keeper?” are classic attempts to limit it. You can also replace it. Arguably this was the Pharisee strategy in tithing mint and cumin. They substituted certain holy looking ceremonial practices for the demands of the law. Likewise, this is start of Luther’s reformation calling out indulgences, pilgrimages, relics and other pious acts that were replacing the actual law and gospel. Our modern liberal society also has gutted and replaced the law. It does not have ears to hear even the basics of natural law such as marriage and children let alone the tougher strains of the temptations of the devil, this world and the flesh. In Lutheran parlance not only will it not look in the mirror of the law to recognize its sins, it has also jumped the curb of the natural law meant to be shared and keep us all safe in God’s providence.

In Lutheran Law and Gospel thinking, one cannot be raised by the gospel – the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – until we have been killed by the law. When ears are closed and hearts are hard, that is the time of the prophets, of the twelve. What that looks like is confrontation. What that looks like is crazy, right up until the moment everyone is carried away. Into oblivion for the 10 Northern tribes, into exile for Judah. That is the wrong message for my congregation. For them the message is more eschatological – “comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord”. Today we might be like the grass of the field, but we are forever safe in the Lord’s hands. But for those outside Christ I can only hint at that. Tease like the parables into contemplation. There are two choices for those outside. There is the kinder and gentler law proclamation, like Corinthians 13 on love. It is heard at every wedding, and it is a ridiculous call. I can’t do that sacrificial love on my own. That takes the indwelling of the Spirit. One can be temporally kind and hope that in the moment of the first fight or the first night he’s home way late, the newlyweds will contemplate how they have trespassed that love they said they wanted. Then there is the proclamation of the twelve. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” That is about as effective as you might think. But as Mr. Jacobs quotes Rorty, “of course the theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen.” Such prophecy as the twelve is nor really prophecy for listening, but prophecy for witness. It is the Lord putting down a marker for future generations.

Mr. Jacobs ends with the lament that the liberal table lost the ability to hear religious responses “at least in part because we Christian Intellectuals ceased to play it for them.” That might be true, but as a humble preacher I would have to add a caveat. We ceased to play it for them because the Word God was sending us wasn’t peace, but repent. As much as Cornel West and a steady stream of mainline preachers liked to claim being a prophetic Christian witness, the dreams they dreamed very often did not line up with the Word. We have had a plague of prophets, but an absence of the Word.

Concord Cast

I’ve added something to the front page. Stepping my way back into something like the daily lectionary podcast. I’ve volunteered to help in a lectio continua daily reading of the Book of Concord. It is hosted and run over at Pseudepigraphus. My squeaky voice I think makes an appearance roughly twice a month along with many other Lutheran Pastors and Laypeople. I’ve put the feed in the “Concord Cast” widget just under the calendar. If you want to add it in a different way here is the feed link.

Seeing the Risen Christ


Biblical Text: Luke 24:13-35
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the Road to Emmaus. It is one of those stories that pop out. Other than Jesus, the main characters are all but anonymous. Cleopas and his unnamed companion and a road between two cities. You get the feeling that Luke heard Cleopas tell the story and said to himself, “I’ve got to include this one.” This is one of the serious faults of the three year lectionary as the story only gets read on a Sunday once every three years. It is too reactive and psychologically rich a story to only meditate on together once every three years.

Just off the top of my head I could think of four strands of biblical theology that Emmaus puts a capstone on: table fellowship (i.e. God eating with sinful men), the road or the journey, Seeing and not-seeing God, The City of God vs. the City of Man. In other words, in five minutes I could outline at least five good sermons from the text that each would have a different doctrinal point and gospel message. The one that I worked with here is the power and place of word and sacrament. No theme operates exclusive to the others. Seeing and not-seeing plays a key motif when you talk word and sacrament, but it is still a supporting roll.

When you strip the church to its core, when our personal and often misguided desires fall away from the church, what remains? Word and Sacrament. How do we see or recognize the risen Christ in our lives? Through Word and Sacrament. What is the correct order? What is the individual’s role in faith? How do these things function in the life of the believer? What is the tragedy and triumph of Word and Sacrament? These are some of the questions that this sermon contemplates as it attempts to apply both law and gospel.

(I wanted to make one stray comment. John, the man who does our recording, usually includes at least a couple of verses from the hymn of the day. Lutheran Service Book #476 – Who are You Who Walk in Sorrow was this service’s hymn. It is a modern text (copyright 2000) paired with a haunting american hymn tune (Jefferson). The text is a powerful one made more so combined with the minor key and lilting tone of the tune. Here is a link to someone who has typed it out. You can find a reflection on many of those biblical themes in the hymn as well as another one from the Easter Season of death and Resurrection. That is a powerful and meaty modern hymn.)

For St. Patrick’s Day

Translation Issues

ak47crossMaybe it is just how the name rolls off the tongue – Kalashnikov. Or it is the engineer/tinkerer in me. His famous AK-47 was the classic necessity is the mother of invention. And to this day, unlike American arms which are high maintenance, the AK-47 just works. Which is of course why every terrorist group and no-good-nik in the world carries the curved magazine rifle. I don’t know if it is true. I’ve never owned a gun in my life. But I once read or was told that it can even handle a wide variety of ammunition. And this makes sense because it was designed quickly for the under-supplied in everything but bodies Red Army. If you are defending Stalingrad and your orders are “not one step back” you might need to be able to fire any rounds you find.
Rod Dreher points at the man’s recent death and some of his final thoughts.

“My spiritual pain is unbearable…I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” he asked.
“The longer I live,” he continued, “the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

On the one hand it is easy to say that such a reaction is a hyper-active conscience. And that would not be wrong. Comrade Kalashnikov is not responsible for all the uses of his terribly marvelous piece of tinkering. On the other hand his response is deeply Christian in two regards. The first is the universal recognition of sin and the groaning of the world. The best of us is corrupt. As the confessional liturgy says, “by what we have done and by what we have left undone”. I’ve often thought that a better line would be “by what I recognize and by what I’m too blind have seen.” That spiritual pain is the recognition of a world groaning waiting for its deliverance (Romans 8:22). The second way this is deeply Christian is that it is this response that allows the gospel proclamation. For this, Christ came. For all of this Christ died. It shall be remembered no more. Sin wishes to hide itself and take no blame for its actions. If we deny our responsibility we are still under the law. It is only accepting our sinfulness that frees us.

Our Sunday bible class got tossed sideways for a bit reflecting on then tense of the verbs in Isaiah 42:1-9 which is the first servant song. I think I’ve mentioned before that there are at least 6 active bible translations within this small congregation (ESV, NIV, NKJV, RSV/NRSV, CEV/Good News, NLT). And each one can approach things differently and not at all internally consistently. For example the ESV typically is the most literal by which I mean the ESV often mechanically translates tense, voice and mood and uses the same word for the same word. It is the type of translation, at least on first pass, that something like Google Translate would do. But there are occasions where the ESV, due to how it came about from the KJV through the RSV/NRSV, maintains a translation that has become established church English but is not very literal. For example in Luke 2:49 the ESV has “in my Father’s House”. The old KJV has “be about my Father’s business” which the NKJV maintains, but the RSV had changed is to “in my Father’s House”. Business is a better translation. Even better would just be a generic “things of my Father”. The ESV strayed from literal I’m assuming to maintain a poetic interpretive translation affected by the location of the scene in the temple.

The point of this is not to hopelessly cloud things. In that example above the general sense is the same. Jesus must do the will of his Father. The biggest difference I would say is that by leaving it generic it invites further reading and meditation about just what are “the things of the father”. The more modern translations, by putting in house and focusing on the scene, narrow the things probably unduly. The things of the Father, as the sermon held a couple of weeks ago, are not really religious practice things which the temple might lead you to conclude. The point is one of revelation leading to knowledge of sin leading to justification. Comrade Kalashnikov’ story is exactly the things of the Father. The revelation might have dawned late, but late is better than never.

Now here is why I started writing. You start out reading the Word, but at the same time the Word is reading you. What I mean by that is God’s Word starts moving you. There are some things, like the extent of sin, where when you spend enough time in the Word, you get moved to where Comrade Kalashnikov was at. I imagine this is what over the ages has driven many to monasteries. You can also get driven to fundamentalist like certitude about certain bedrock doctrines like the 10 Commandments and the creed. We naturally think these things are lite trifles, but spend enough time with the Word and you see the effects that might not have been so clear. You start to see the punishments to the third and the fourth generations. There are other things that I have become much less certain of, or maybe a better way of putting it would be that there are a lot more things which come under gospel freedom. Jesus reiterates the 10 commandments and “turns the knob to 11” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17ff) . This same Jesus is the one who “eats with tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11) and breaks the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:2) and pays attention to gentiles and women (Matthew 15:21-28). That pattern is meaningful.

It is not that we don’t have traditions, but that we hold them lightly meaning only when they are secondary. If you find yourself excluding someone because they are not saying the right shibboleth at the right time, you’ve made a mistake. Likewise, if you find yourself ignoring the sacraments or treating them with disrespect, or making excuse for sin instead of repenting, you’ve made a mistake. And in a world as full of spiritual pain as Kalashnikov came to see it, rightly hearing the Word probably leads to where it always did – the cross. Anything to kill the pain.

Which is what the cross does. Because it is only there the foot that we see. Both the depth of the wrong, and the deeper love of God.

Epiphany Homily


Biblical Text: Matt: 2:1-12
Trouble in the World
Where we end up so often is just a function of where we start. Being born in the United States, at least materially, has long been winning the lottery of starting positions. Today, being born with two parents in an intact marriage is the best predictor, without a second factor even in the running, for success (defined materially) in life. The same thing happens intellectually. If you tell me a couple of your pre-suppositions, I can probably guess what you position would be on the scare-quote “issues”. In my experience the answer to the question: Is man fundamentally good or fundamentally flawed establishes the rest. And I’d like to say that that question does not have to be religious. Immanuel Kant would talk of the crooked timber of humanity and his contemporary enlightenment deists who helped found this country built in all kinds of checks and balances against our human foibles.

So what we end up with typically is an arms race to teach the again scare quotes “correct” starting point. Proverbs isn’t wrong, “train someone in the way, and they won’t depart from it”.

The problem with all the various cultural militias is that the entire process of teaching and formation begins with our reason and senses, and it is our work through and through.

Gospel in the World

The good news is that God doesn’t start with our work or our reason. God reveals himself. God makes himself known where we are at.

Where were the magi? Probably in Persia studying star charts and making astrological predictions for the court wealthy. Why did they head off? Probably because they saw the chance to get in on the ground floor of a great king. There stars told them to go. Not the most promising starting point.

And the first place they go is to Jerusalem. The most likely place for the new king is the home of the old king. But they probably realized that this was going sideways when Herod didn’t bring out his heir. Herod calls out everybody who should know – not by an astrological sign, but the Jewish starting point of the law – and send them on their way to find “the new king”.

And here is the Epiphany. They’ve been sent to Bethlehem, but Jesus is probably back in Nazareth. A place where nobody would look for “the King of the Jews”.

But Matthew tells us to look, “behold”…something important follows…”behold, the star went before them until it came to rest over the place the child was…when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy…”
This is not an ordinary star. And you’ve heard all the naturalistic explanations. But this isn’t something natural, this is revelation. This is God coming down and revealing himself. We can’t find our way to God, but God reveals himself…God comes to where we are. Even if that is stuck between astrological star charts and a murderous king. Peter describes Jesus as the bright morning star. He talks of the “morning star rising in your hearts.” And that morning star confirming the prophetic word which is a lamp shining in a dark place.
The magi, completely without the Word, were given a star, an angel to guide them to the child. We, as Peter says, have the prophetic Word. We have the morning star rising in our hearts. We have Christ come to abide with us.
And when guided by the morning star – the revelation of Jesus Christ – all the natural certainties go out the window. Because God delights in making a new thing and sending us back to our own countries to be lights in the midst of the nations. Amen.

Hear the Voice of My Cry – Prayer from 1 Tim 2:1 part 3

Prayer candlesThe third word that Paul uses in 1 Timothy 2:1 when he is urging every type of prayer is unique. Warning, I’m going be a grammar snob at this point because there really isn’t another way to do this. The word translated as intercessions is a noun. Nouns are (humming school house rock in the background): persons, places or things. My 10 year old, just butting herself into my odd little grammar place, tells me, “they’ve added ideas to that list, Dad.” [Insert Eye Roll at way uncool Father] As a noun, in all of the bible, this word is used only in 1 Timothy. So how do we get at its meaning? Our methodology to this point is broken. I’m going to follow two paths. The first path is a purely secular path and how you would get the meaning of any word. I’m going to look in a big dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary, but something called The Greek-English Lexicon of New Testament and other early Christian Literature or BDAG for short which is an acronym of the four generations of scholars who have led the project. The big dictionaries give you meaning, but they also trace for you the various uses of the word in question so you can get a feel for the context. The second path is to jump the grammar category and see if there is a verbal form of the noun that is used in the Bible. This second path captures some of the thoughts behind our earlier use of the Psalms. Does the Holy Spirit have a peculiar definition or a specific way of using this word or closely joined words. (In English for example we use the word snorkel as a noun meaning that bent tube thing you can breathe through under water. The verb of snorkel is – He snorkeled in the Caribbean – which means the act of using the snorkel. You can think of a bunch of other similar words. Same concept in Greek. Languages are constantly innovative and amazing things, taking nouns and creating verbs and other items, like google and googling. Okay, I’ll get back on topic.)

Looking in BDAG our word intercession is found consistently in papyri (ancient paper, not the fun font to put on all our Christmas program notices) and in other Greek sources like Plato and Plutarch. When you went to the King or other ruler you brought your petitions or requests. And these are where we find it on the papyri. “Paul, a petition for a million denarii from your most exalted excellency, on behalf of your loyal subjects in need of a new bath-house.” So, over time, as the word became attached to requests from Kings (who sometimes styled themselves as God-Kings), a petition took on the character of prayer. But since it was brought by a specific person, usually the person closest or considered closest to the King you were petitioning. And it was typically brought on behalf of someone else, the petition-prayer became an intercession. Hence, another big dictionary (Louw-Nida), after examining all the words in the language occupying a similar usage, defines it as “to speak to someone on behalf of someone else – ‘to intercede, intercession.’” BDAG puts the first definition as petition or request the second definition as prayer and then qualifies that to definition 2a as intercessory prayer. The dictionaries hone us in on a specific type of prayer. In a list of what could be synonyms, the specific flavor is what distinguishes the word use.

So, does the bible use a verbal root of this same word? Why, yes it does. In two places really close Paul uses verbal versions of this word.

Romans 8:34 – Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Romans 8:26 – Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

The way that Paul thinks about this word is what Jesus and the Holy Spirit do for us in our weakness. Christ, performing the role of Great High Priest, intercedes for us with the Father. The Holy Spirit, when our supplications, our “Oh Crap I need this” prayers, are way off the target, and when our “quid pro quo” prayers are writing checks that can’t be cashed, The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with the words.

So, now we have a really good idea of what intercessions really means. Paul is urging Timothy, the pastor of a congregation toward intercessions. I would also assert that Paul is urging all mature Christians toward intercessions “for all people”. What follows this section is qualifications for ordained ministry. This, prayer, is what Christians would call the priesthood of all believers. I want to pause for a second and reflect on the gravity of this. You, Mr. and Mrs. And Miss and Ms. Christian, are to be like Christ and the Holy Spirit are for us. You are to make intercession for “all people” with God. With that as the context, hear these verses, let them resonate.

James 5:16 – Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

1 Peter 1:9 – But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Exodus 19:6 – and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

You, Mr. and Mrs. and Miss and Ms. Christian, are the priests of this world. Priests make intercession. If you don’t know, haven’t heard, or have forgotten, this is a called the priesthood of all believers. It might be an inappropriate theological use, but prayer is the sacrament of the universal priesthood. And it is not just a feel-good, everybody is included, participation ribbons for everyone with a clap from the helicopter parents inclusion. St. Paul, as the first piece of advice, urges supplications, prayers, intercessions. You are to be mature enough in your faith that you are not just saying “Oh Crap, Jesus take the wheel.” Mature enough not just to be praying for ourselves and praying for our role in the kingdom, but mature enough also to be praying for others on an intercessory basis. Some that will request them and others that will not. (Pause for an Oh, Crap, and pause again for the Spirit to clean that up.)

This is not something outsourced to the pastor or the pastoral public ministry. This is the core function of the priesthood of all believers. “First of all, then, I urge…” Why? “that we might lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified. This is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:3-4)” Your intercession for the world, for all people, is both for your benefit here and now, but mostly for their benefit eternally. Problems in evangelism are always first problems of prayer among the people of God.

I will want to add some personal experiences, notes, pitfalls and the like here. I’ll do that when I continue. If you want to catch up on prior posts of this sequence.

Part 1 of this Series

Part 2 of this series

Hear the Voice of My Cry – Prayer from 1 Tim 2:1 part 2

bargainingThose first prayers of our lives are often the cries of the heart, or existential terror. And Paul urges Timothy to these. The psalmists use these pleas and cries of distress over and over, and we even suggested a couple of instances where Jesus engages in these supplications. So, what about “prayers”, the second word in Paul’s list in 1 Tim 2:1?

Again, let us imagine our normal experience. After we have said the “Jesus, take the wheel” prayer, and we start to calm a little bit. When we no longer need the paper bag to regulate breathing. What are our first thoughts? If you are like me you start thinking things like, “Ok, Jesus, the car is on the road, if you just let it be true that I didn’t do any serious damage to Dad’s car, I promise I’ll make church next Sunday.” After we know we aren’t going to die immediately, we start bargaining whatever we can think of, usually whatever we think might be holy or religious or what the god(s) might like, in exchange for “just make it alright”. Now depending upon the circumstance alright might be anything from the way it was before to fix this to give me more time to anything that we are sure will make our continuing existence better.

Now if you are at all a pious person you’ve been told by people like me – “God isn’t a galactic vending machine”. I like that phrase so much I want to defend it just a bit before deconstructing my own pious-BS. God isn’t a galactic vending machine in the sense that we have anything to put into it. When we start bargaining it is usually with one of two things: a) we promise to be much better boys in the future or b) we appeal to everything we’ve done in the past. Call it the prodigal and the elder son or the little-boy-blue and little-jack-horner camps. And if you know the story of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32), when the prodigal gets home to Dad and starts into his “I promise to blow the horn next time” speech, Dad cuts him off at “I have sinned, I am no longer worthy to be called you son”. Dad doesn’t let him promise anything. The Father isn’t a galactic vending machine we put anything into, but he does provide. The older son does get to do his “what a good boy am I” routine, but Dad more or less says are you sure that is the line you want to use. Right now, all the good stuff and the party is inside, and you are standing outside.

Enough defense of my older-son piety (but God, I’ve never been so immature as to bargain with you), let’s tare it down a little. God may not be a galactic vending machine, but “prayer” as Paul uses it here, and as we will see by looking at a couple of Psalms, means bargaining in a sense or exchanging wishes. The invitation is not to bargain from our strength, because we have none, but to bargain from God’s promises. The invitation is to say to God, “I need this, I need your help here, and I think you should agree because Jesus did, or because you told us to do this, or because this is who you have revealed yourself to be.” The Ur-example of this might be the man from Ur himself, Abraham. When God told him he was off to destroy Sodom, Abraham negotiated with God. You can find that story in Genesis 18:22-33, but Abraham opens up the negotiation with this bargaining chip:

Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:23-25 ESV)

It is not the righteous within the city that he bargains with or their righteousness. He bargains over and for them, but he bargains with the nature of God as the Almighty has revealed himself. The Judge of all the earth will do justice.

I’ve put all the uses in the Psalms of “prayer” in this file, but there are two psalms that I want to give special attention to: Psalm 86 and Psalm 90. Please take some time to read each…ok, now that you are back, Psalm 90 first. Notice the inscription: A Prayer of Moses, The Man of God. I hope you know the story of Moses. If you don’t the Biblical book of Exodus is where you go. In that background of this prayer is the Exodus event. God has delivered his people from bondage. He has explicitly promised a land flowing with milk and honey, a restoration to the promised-land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And he has given the law on Sinai’s height and exercised his judgment on the grumbling and wondering people of Israel. I hear that reflected in the first 11 verses. Moses acknowledges the God who has been their dwelling place and the majesty and power of that God. We know we have nothing. “You have set our iniquities before you…” So what does Moses ask for, what is he seeking? Wisdom (v12), pity (v13), satisfaction and gladness (v14-15), knowledge of God into the future (v16) and success in building (v17). I’d say those requests run our usually gambit. Everything from material success and happiness, to pity of our powerlessness, to wisdom and knowledge of God for us and our kin. Does Moses, the Man of God, offer anything for these? Does he bargain with anything Israel has? No. What he does is remind God of his promises and his steadfast love (v14). That word steadfast love is one of the key words of the OT. It is God’s Chesed, his steadfast love, his covenant faithfulness. Even when we fail, God says He is faithful to his promises. Moses’ prayer, his bargaining with God, is to live up to God’s promises. God, this is the stuff we heard when you said a land flowing with milk and honey, were we fooled? God, you promised to prosper us, yet we have been afflicted, How long? Let your work be shown to your servants.

Psalm 86 carries the inscription: A Prayer of David. David, as Moses is the OT lawgiver and type of the prophet and priest, David is the OT type of the King. David was the man who received a covenant from God for an eternal throne. Yet that throne seems to be in danger. David acknowledges his poverty – “I am poor and needy (v1)”. It may originally sound like that bargaining from what we have – “preserve my life, for I am godly” – but that godliness is defined as simple trust. “Save your servant, who trusts in you – you are my God”. And what is that trust based on? “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you (v5).” Notice the steadfast love again? When we are in need of forgiveness, when we have been faithless to the covenants, you remain faithful. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord/nor are there any works like yours (v8).” Now we should do the same as before, what does David want? Walk in God’s ways (v11), deliverance from insolent men (v14), a sign and shame on his enemies (v17). David’s bargaining with God is as with Moses a calling of God to live up to God’s promises. I thought my throne was for all generations, yet it looks like it won’t last this one, did I hear wrong? If I did, show me your ways, unite my heart to fear your name (v11).

So, what does this mean for our prayer life? There are two things I would recommend. First we authentically need stuff in the here and now. We should not be afraid or too pious to ask God for things. Moses and David’s requests were for real stuff. If you look at the rest of the psalms and how this word is used, it is often parallel to those cries and pleas. Our requests come out of that real need. Which leads to the second point, we should recognize our need. Prayer is a request or even a bargaining with God. Our authentic reaction is a good guide at least initially, but it fails us in what we offer. We are bargaining from absolute need. We pray because we have nothing in ourselves. The only thing we offer is what God has already given to us. Our bargains, our prayers of this type, should be based on God’s promise and love for us. God’s love might be shown by a Mercedes Benz, but part and parcel of both David and Moses’ prayers were requests for wisdom. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a M-B, and help me to drive always in the narrow path. You mean the narrow path is a walking path? But the Benz has plenty of trunk room for that cross, why walk. Carry it, but how will I bring my Benz? Oh, now I get it.

One last example from the life of Jesus in John 11:38-44. Jesus prays before calling out to raise Lazarus. Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days and he stinks. And Jesus prays. The prayer, in my hearing, is of this form. The promise to Jesus is that he is the Word of the Father, that he is the beloved, that we should listen to him. I promised them to see your Glory, and I said this so that they might believe you sent me. Lazarus, come out.

These “prayers” are things we need, with the Kingdom and the promises kept firmly in mind.

Next week we will talk about the next word in Paul’s list: “intercessions”. Just a hint, with this one we start to get out of our needs and start looking toward others.

Part 1 of this Series

Hear the Voice of My Cry – Prayer from 1 Tim 2:1 part 1

MunchScreamSomebody recently unearthed Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal and published it. O’Connor, if you haven’t read any of her stories, is a mid-20th century writer. Some try and stuff her into a Southern Writer box, others into a Catholic Writer box, while others focus on genres of gothic or short story. As with most great artists they really stand alone. They may come from somewhere, but the vision speaks universally. She died of lupus at the age of 39, and the prayer book published is from her time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in her 20s. I’d hate to imagine something I wrote in my early 20’s in a personal journal being published, but that is why I’m me and she Flannery O’Connor. The New Yorker takes a look at the book here, and one sentence of the review struck me as incredibly insightful, especially as our elders have been wrestling with prayer. Quoting the article, “learning to avoid cliché and speak authentically is a predicament of both prayer and literature, and solving the problem in her prayer life allowed O’Connor to solve the same problem in her fiction.”

I’m also just going to blatantly rip off one of the best bible studies I’ve ever had the chance to attend. Pastor Rob Foote from Trinity in Ithaca led it on 1 Tim 2:1. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” Notice those four words that Paul is urging. It might just be every word for prayer that Paul can think up, and in the context of a letter to young Timothy that could be the intent. “Timothy, my boy, stop writing to me and start praying.” But what I’m going to argue is that Paul’s sequence helps us who are learning to pray like it helped Flannery. Paying attention to the differences of the words and the order helps us to speak authentically to God. And in speaking authentically we grow in faith and understanding.

To accomplish this will require a little deconstruction first. Let me describe something and you tell me if it resonates. Piety is not a highly valued trait in our culture. You are more likely to get chided for being one of those Jesus Freaks than you are for being clueless coming before the throne of God, so our prayer life is rather haphazard and unstructured. At the same time we’ve all heard and remember bits and pieces of sermons or bible studies or confirmation classes on prayer. And in high pious form they all tended to urge giving thanks to God first, right? So a moment comes in our life when we feel the need to pray. And let’s be blunt, this is usually right after we have royally messed something up and right before what we have messed up becomes public knowledge. You could also reduce that to it is usually a moment of stark terror. And all you want to scream is “God, fix this!” And then you remember, oh, I’m supposed to give thanks first. Give thanks for what? I need this fixed, now! But if I don’t give thanks, then God won’t hear my scream of terror. And it snowballs into fight between “Pious-BS” and “I need this!”. And do you know what never actually happens? Prayer. We collapse in a fetal position, spiritually and sometimes literally, of guilt over not praying right and more guilt over messing up and terror at the hell to come. If any of that sounds familiar, I think Paul’s words might help.

The methodology I’m going to use is relatively simple. I’m going to let scripture interpret scripture, and I’m going to do this by letting the Psalms, the prayerbook of the bible define each of Paul’s request words. Now if you are a stickler you could be screaming right now how are you letting Hebrew poems define Greek words we are talking about in English? I’ll give a very simplistic reply. The same guy, the Holy Spirit, wrote it all. I could limit myself to the New Testament, or Paul’s letters, or just the book of 1 Timothy, but my intuition is that if you are talking about prayers go to how the prayer-book of the bible uses the words. If the Holy Spirit can’t work in different languages, or if you have a problem with verbal inspiration, your problem is not prayer, which is part of the life of faith. You have a problem at a much more fundamental level – God’s description of how he has worked and continues to work in this world. In Paul’s framework some intercession is required.

So, on to the first word, supplications. Such a pious sounding word, right? Slightly archaic, check. More than 3 syllables, check. Give a hint of control or at least educated vocabulary, check. And all of those checks I believe work against the true intent of this word. A bloodless way of saying this word might be our true felt needs. Paul is urging taking to God our true felt needs. But let us look at how the translators of the Psalms used this word or where they applied it. In all the bible the word is used in 71 verses. It is used 27 times in the psalms. The first appearance is Psalm 5:2 – “Give attention to the sound of my cry…” Supplication is the word “cry”. This sounds an awful lot like that stark moment of Terror. “Oh God, listen up if you are there…” Psalm 6:9 is the next place. Psalm 6 gets labeled as a prayer for recovery from illness or in my ESV – Deliver my life. I’d encourage you to read the entire Psalm, it is short, but this is stark existential terror. At the end of which the psalmist says, “The Lord has heard my plea.” The supplication is plea, which in the context is that deep anxious cry, “Oh God, just get me through this surgery…” So, just to save some words, I’m going to give you the rest of the verses in an attached file, Prayer Verse Reference File. But, I’m going to point out one other use, Psalm 142:2. “I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.” The psalm is for delivery from persecution. The translators chose to translate this “complaint”. The rest of the uses are similar – plea, cry, sometimes generic prayer, complaint, one time affliction. The picture in the psalms of this word is that existential prayer in that moment of terror.

Contrary to the pious-BS memory, God does not despise our cries of terror. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I don’t want to move on to how God answers our cries, at least not yet. For now I just want to let it stand that Paul urges us first to such “supplications”. We don’t need to clean these things up first. The ultimate example of this might actually be from the life of Christ, both in the Garden of Gethsemane (“take this cup from me”) and on the cross (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?). Finding our authentic prayer usually starts from the authentic moment of terror.

We’ll continue this tomorrow…